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Climate and Environment

Lincoln Heights’ Scenic Overlook Is Safe From Development (For Now)

A wide view from the grassy hilltop at sunset. The cityscape of downtown Los Angeles is viewable in the distance.
On a clear day, it's possible to see Catalina Island from Flat Top.
(Caitlin Hernández
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Flat Top, a beloved lookout point in Lincoln Heights, will stay undeveloped for now. Starting in 2021, a proposed home caused an uproar when neighbors protested the loss of green space and displacement.

The hill has been a popular spot for generations to go up and watch the sunset, and it’s been the backdrop for films and album covers. With Los Angeles City Planning now officially denying the project, it’s seen as a victory by community residents.

Why People Defended Flat Top

Although it is used by the public as an informal park, the land is privately held. Trumika Corp. owner Duc Truong wanted to build a two-story, 4,000-square-foot home on part of the sloped hill, which led residents to organize to save it. They worried building on it would lead the neighborhood towards a building spree of exorbitant housing. Typical homes in the area average about 1,500 square feet.

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The hill is a simple grass and dirt area in L.A.’s oldest suburb. It’s a quick drive up Thomas Street where you can walk a short path to a 360-degree view across L.A. County. When I spoke with residents last year about the project, they told me the construction would disrupt the wildlife corridor to Ernest E. Debs Regional Park, a long stretch of nature, and privatize an outlook that residents enjoy.

“We need this open space. It’s sort of the communal back yard, historically, since the beginning of the city,” said Sara Clendening, president of the Neighborhood Council. “Everybody in Lincoln Heights has the open space equivalent to the size of printer paper.”

Everybody in Lincoln Heights has the open space equivalent to the size of printer paper.
— Sara Clendening, president of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council

While the neighborhood has a few pocket parks, there’s only one major park, serving more than 30,000 people. Clendening was one of dozens who protested the development during a zoning hearing in Nov. 2021. In the city’s letter of denial from Jan. 17, just one person wrote in to support the project.

Flat Top plays a big role in L.A.’s history, too. Chicano R&B band Tierra’s City Nights album cover was taken on the peak. Ricky Martin has snagged photos for the ‘gram. An old fossil that was the basis for a new species was found in the hill. But its role in Native American history may have ultimately saved it.

What The City Said

Flat Top is part of the city planning department’s hillside area map, which restricts building until a number of zoning standards are met, like grading and street creation. In the denial letter, Charles Rausch, an associate zoning administrator, echoed some of the arguments the community raised:

  • The project wouldn’t match the community because it’s much larger than other homes nearby.
  • It wouldn’t have safe emergency access.
  • The hilltop is documented sacred Native American land under the Kizh/Gabrieleño tribe.
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In this case, an exemption request is why the city intervened. The developer didn’t want to widen and pave a new street, which would have required them to purchase more land. That was problematic to Rausch because fire trucks couldn’t even use the existing path, making the exemption simply “unfeasible” and “dangerous” to allow. The owner also wanted an additional retaining wall — a structure that holds soil behind it and flattens more of the hill — to support an infinity pool.

Rausch said he would have denied either request regardless, according to the letter, but he was especially concerned with the area’s sacred land status.

“... the fact that the entire top of Flat Top Hill is listed in the Native American Heritage Commission’s Sacred Lands File also makes it difficult to approve the project,” Rausch wrote. “As the tribes were not given a chance to consult on the project, this action violates the spirit of AB 52.”

AB 52 requires public agencies to consult with tribes to prevent damage under the California Environmental Quality Act. The commission records when areas are culturally and historically significant, such as signal and burial sites.

Flat Top’s Future

The hill’s future isn’t clear because the denial is only for that project. And the developer appealed.

But residents across the Eastside have long organized to save green spaces — such as Elephant Hill, Paradise Hill and another area in Montecito Heights that was successfully turned into an official park after an environmental group bought it.

Clendening would like to see Flat Top become an official protected park, but there’s still concern that whoever owns it will want to build. Other parcel owners around the hill could still erect homes, too, but this moment is the fruit of collective effort.

“Usually, in all these hearings, you hear from the same five people,” Clendening said. “But this was actually all of our community calling in, and it makes me proud that people’s voices were heard.”

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